Join us on Wednesday, April 19, at the American Swedish Institute to celebrate the publication of Scandinavians in the State House: How Nordic Immigrants Shaped Minnesota Politics by Klas Bergman. Klas will be joined in conversation by Tom Berg, attorney and former state legislator.
Why did you write this book?
Growing up in Stockholm, Sweden I read–no, devoured–the epic tales by Vilhelm Moberg about the Swedish immigrants to Minnesota. Later, I became an immigrant myself and I continue to be fascinated by immigration and immigrant stories. In this book, I managed to combine that interest with my other great interest, American politics.
It’s about how hundreds of thousands of Scandinavian immigrants in Minnesota, who started arriving in the 1850s, took part in building a new state, came to dominate the state’s politics ever since the breakthrough in 1892, and created the U.S. state that most resembles Scandinavia, both politically and culturally. This book has really been a wonderful and challenging project, full of great drama and fascinating personalities.
What surprised you the most in your research?
Well, a lot of what I learned was new to me, and it might be new to many readers, for this aspect of the Scandinavian immigrant story is not widely known. But what surprised me, in particular, was the sheer number of Scandinavian politicians, at all levels in Minnesota’s society, and how they, often very soon after their arrival in the new world, became involved in politics, voting and running for office. They assimilated quickly; they wanted to become Americans. This is, I believe, a crucial part of the history of Scandinavian immigration to Minnesota, for these Scandinavian politicians helped create today’s Minnesota.
What are the key ingredients in that political legacy?
It’s been called a moralistic political culture, shaped by the Scandinavians together with those who came before them to Minnesota from New England, the Yankees. It’s pragmatism and a feeling of community and equality, with abundant cooperative activities. The idea of helping your neighbor is important, and nothing is more important than education. Former governor Arne Carlson talks about the “common good,” combining prudence and progressivism.
Many Scandinavians also came to Minnesota for political reasons – why?
Yes, there were thousands of them, Swedes and Norwegians but, in particular, Finns. Many of them were reluctant immigrants, blacklisted in their home countries for their political and union activities and unable to find work there. They left for America to find work, to survive. I call them radicals in exile, where, in Minnesota, they often continued their political activities, published newspapers, gathered in various political groups and parties, led the strikes in the mines on the Iron Range. When the American communist party was formed in the early 1920s, over 40 percent of its members were Finns.
What were your sources for your research?
In addition to reading extensively in the existing Scandinavian immigration literature and the rich Scandinavian language press in Minnesota, I found some previously unpublished material, which was very exciting. I also traveled widely around the state and conducted a large number of interviews with politicians, scholars, journalists, and others, including former leading Scandinavian politicians such as Walter Mondale, Wendell Anderson, Arne Carlson, and Roger Moe, as well as members of the present generation of Scandinavian politicians. The interviews were an essential part of my research, and they provide an important, extra dimension to my book.
Minnesota’s population is changing. There are very few new Scandinavian immigrants. Will their political legacy survive when the new immigrants are Somalis, Hmong, and Latinos?
That is the important question I try to answer in the book. Still, today, one-third of Minnesota’s 5.4 million residents regard themselves as “Scandinavians,” so, generally, the answer is, yes, that legacy will survive because it is so firmly entrenched in Minnesota’s political culture. But one cannot say this with absolute certainty, and only time will tell.
Did the five Nordic immigrant groups play equally important roles in Minnesota politics?
No, not at all. The Danes played only a modest role in Minnesota’s policy, although there were individual exceptions; the Icelanders were relatively few, but they distinguished themselves through their important newspaper, the Minneota Mascot; and the Finns put a radical stamp on Minnesota politics as strike leaders on the Iron Range and as numerous socialist and communist party members. But it was the Norwegian immigrants, who came from a not-yet-independent Norway, who took the political lead early on among the Nordic immigrants, and Norwegian-born Knute Nelson’s election victory in 1892 resulted in a century during which all but five of the governors were Scandinavians and during which two Norwegian Americans, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, were elected vice presidents of the United States.
Who is this book for?
I think it’s for everyone who is interested in immigration and American history and politics and, in particular, Minnesota and midwestern history and politics. And at a time when immigration and refugee policy is high on the agenda the world over, the book is perhaps also a reminder of the importance of immigration and how the Scandinavians were received in Minnesota. They were welcomed, and their labor and their professional skills were needed. All this allowed them to create a new future for themselves and their families, which is why they came to Minnesota in the first place.